As a cattleman, I take great pride in the beef I produce. Readers deserve to have the full set of information and facts when it comes to cattle and the environment.
Recently, bombastic headlines have sought to villainize the U.S. beef industry’s environmental footprint. The accusations, however, ignore the proven scientific facts. According to both the USDA and EPA’s own estimates, beef cattle production in the U.S. accounts for only 3.3% of total greenhouse emissions. Transportation and electricity generation together make up 56%, by comparison.
Cutting back on our beef consumption does not impact environmental sustainability as much as some groups have led consumers to believe. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences found if all livestock in the U.S. were eliminated and every American followed a vegan diet, greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by 2.6%, or 0.36% globally.
Despite the minimal reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, The Beef State would face serious consequences. Thousands of lost jobs, skyrocketing unemployment that would devastate Nebraska’s rural communities and severe harm to the state budget given livestock’s $12 billion economic impact. Think less money for schools, roads, natural resource districts, health and human services, etc. The list goes on and on.
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What is factually accurate is the significant progress in overall sustainability achieved by the U.S. cattle industry, and we’re doing more with less than our forefathers.
Compared with 1977, the U.S. today produces the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle. And we’re continuously improving. Nebraska Cattlemen is a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a proactive, voluntary forum to help identify opportunities for continuous improvement in all types of operations and companies throughout the beef industry.
Also not considered in recent stories is the incredibly important role cattle play in our food system as upcyclers, which refers to their ability to consume human inedible forage and plant leftovers and turn it into high-quality protein.
In fact, 90% of what cattle eat is forage and plant leftovers that people can’t eat, and more than 40% of the land in the contiguous U.S. is pasture and rangeland that is too rocky, steep and/or arid to support cultivated agriculture – yet this land can support cattle and protein upcycling.
Additionally, those who oppose eating beef likely haven’t considered that research is beginning to show how proper grazing management can actually sequester carbon in the soil. And partnerships between groups like the Nebraska Cattlemen and Rainwater Basin Joint Venture are actually helping restore ecosystems and provide critical habitat for millions of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife.
In the face of a growing global population, we need ruminant animals, like cattle, to help make more protein with fewer resources. History and well-established research consistently shows that science-based advancements and practical, balanced dietary patterns promote health and sustainability, not eliminating single foods, like beef.
Mike Drinnin is president of Nebraska Cattlemen and operates Drinnin Feedlots Inc. in Columbus.